research institute for compassionate economics

Open defecation in India in the New York Times

Written by Dean Spears on January 29th, 2014

Gardiner Harris has a recent series highlighting the terrible air pollution in Delhi and its effects on health. Although I’m no expert on air pollution, I’m not surprised to hear that it is about twice as bad as Beijing, with awful consequences.

In one part, Harris links to rice research on open defecation and child height:

Indians are exposed to high levels of toxic bacteria because more than half of the country’s vast population defecates outside. The ensuing infections stunt growth

You can read the whole article here: On bad air days in India, staying inside doesn’t help.

We’ve been fortunate enough to have our sanitation research featured in several newspaper articles over the past several months. One can invariably learn something about the challenge of persuading some members of the Indian elite that this is even a problem by scrolling through the indignant comments always left on the website. One commenter, who apparently did not click the link to the research paper, wrote:

Where do you even find the data to make such massively sweeping proclamations?

For instance, close to 5 million people living in Delhi (and 6 million in Mumbai) must defecate outside every morning to backup your “statement of fact” (for just those two cities). And another 650 million people too need to be similarly engaged every morning across India to satisfy your statement.

To answer the question, although my favorite data are the independent Demographic and Health Surveys, I suspect the writer might be more convinced by the Indian government’s own 2011 census. The census reports that about 350,000 households in Delhi and 130 million households in all of India defecate in the open. Assuming at least 5 people on average in these households, the commenter’s guess of 650 million was a pretty good guess. The WHO-Unicef Joint Monitoring Programme puts it at 615 million for 2011. I do hope the commenter didn’t follow the link because he was too busy googling those numbers for himself!